Wednesday, December 30, 2009

PLASTIC BAGS - December 31, 2009

A strange disease of the mind has come over to us from somewhere. I encountered it when living in London. There is a campaign to get people to save their plastic grocery bags and recycle them. Those who now use them for disposing of their kitchen garbage are told that they should use specially prepared bags for that purpose, under penalty of being heavily fined for wasting. This is in spite of the fact that re-making the small, light ones requires more energy, including human effort, than making them from scratch. The attention is paid on the re-use of materials, rather than the re-use of the bags themselves. I observe that each of the big black bags carries about two or three times as much as the little ones, and uses even more plastic. And then there is the fact that many of the used bags are not suitable, due to contamination by the likes of spilled milk. And there is the cost, in money and oil, of packing the big bags, distributing them into the supermarkets and taking them home, together with the groceries in the condemned little ones. A little consideration would tell us that using the same bags twice each would save on cost, on energy, on convenience and that no bag, on average, is saved as thoroughly as the one left on the supermarket shelf and unsold. The attention to only a single feature, as well as the attention to a current idea, leaves us with a poor attention to the wrong feature of the problem. I do not think that this campaign is motivated by the desire to get people to pay for additional bags, under the illusion that they are contributing to the solution. I really do think that those pursuing the problem by a campaign of punishment are following an old folly that the answer to every difficulty is to be found in outlawing the imagined problem. That is a folly especially common in Western Europe and North America.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

TEACHERS - December 24, 2009

So we have finally heard the solution to the fact that the standings of American students in the international comparison continues to fall, as measured in the master of one’s native language and the command of elementary mathematics. And the self-appointed wizards of education have put their finger on one cure-all: fire the teachers. And this firing will be put in the hands of people hired by an establishment consisting of many who know no more than the people badly enabled by the last generation of teachers. No one tells us where we will find the people who will do better in the classroom. In fact, the supposed experts have found no way to improve the facility of those being turned out by the departments of education. It is developing that very few of those who teach even in high school have qualifications comparable with a BA in Mathematics, and the situation is even worse in Physics and only slightly better in Chemistry, while the expertise of most elementary teachers of Arithmetic display no understanding of the subject better than the ability to get a good B in an 8th grade test. But many people who are themselves anarithmetic consider that they know who is a bad teacher. Worse, many of them take the word of their children and the children’s classmates. In the meantime, ever fewer of the entrants to our university know what was taken as the basis for pursuing a scientific education a mere 5o years ago. But that does not prevent them from imagining that they can make a wonderful difference by firing people the principals finger out as incompetent and replacing them with others of equally shabby preparation. People with the rare competence to handle difficult conceptual problems are lining up to get to Wall Street, not to our overcrowded, underpaid, harassed and criticized classrooms. The evidence is there for us to see. The cure-alls are just snake oil.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

DEBT, AGAIN - December 17, 2009

Once again the question of debt shows up in the national confrontation and once again it becomes patent that our nation can be induced to shrink from paying our account, or even acknowledging that we must pay it. The national habit of paying with a credit card, not as a way of marshalling the means without carrying around wads of money, comes to the fore. We have seen the banks luring our children into accounts on which they can charge legendary amounts of interest, having committed the scam of admitting them to the vote but actually having made them easy targets of the money-lenders. In fact, we have learned that after the first vote, these children overwhelmingly do not bother to visit the polls, but they can be seduced into spending money they do not have, with no concern about how the accounts will be settled. What is more concerning is how many of the supposedly adults of our nation think that we can mount wars, cut taxes and run on spending sprees in our marts without any idea where the money will come from to free us from the usurers. But a nation that cannot pay for its extravagances and shrinks from the reality of debt is not one that lenders will be willing to entrust with a loan. So the unspoken words in the debate about paying the costs of our high living is that no one who has even a bit more caution than we would be willing to extend credit to us, certainly not in the trillions of dollars. And those of us who have saved for our retirement are sure to see our nest eggs crumble into dust while our government, Dem and Tory, look out for the self-indulgence of the rich, who have arranged not to be bothered carrying any of the load they have managed to inflict on all the rest of us. Those of us who do not have riches, to say nothing of those who have no jobs and no homes and no health, will be forced to bear the load of the banksters and their ilk.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

HUBRIS - December 10, 2009

As we cross the threshold into another period of imperial war, we must look back on the wisdom of the classical world and consider how we came to be impaled on the horns of yet another dilemma. The US has come through a long period when it was the shining torch of the Enlightenment, though there was always the grubby details of the human condition to mar the wonderful story of human flowering. The initial period when the rebels of the New World considered how to build a civilization eventually gave way to the Jackson Era, when the Man on Horseback started rebuilding the republic to look more like the party system of the British semi-democracy. But they were always ahead of the game, even though they did not lead, but followed, in the elimination of slavery. Eventually the temptations of power led them into the XX Century as they consumed much that remained of the Spanish Empire and we moved to replace them and the British and French Empires into the flourishing of the power of money and the money of power. Since WW II, we have styled ourselves the leaders and saviors of capitalism and when that was challenged, if only in theory, by the rise of a nation that called itself socialist, our ruling class took up the task of seeing that the threat to the power and wealth of the Robber Barons would be dedicated to bringing them down, as Napoleon was brought down in 1815. We called everyone democracies, even those that were military dictatorships, provided they were dedicated to preserving the power of the proprietor class. But we discovered that supporting every tinpot dictator in the world eventually led us into wars we could not win, even with conscription. But by that time we felt ourselves the rulers of the world, hubris had set in, and the Light had begun to go out. Now, with the riches of capitalism shrinking again under the pressure of unlimited greed, US is so consumed by the imperial hubris that even well-wishing liberal leaders are joined in a war that may finally finish the American Experiment.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

BANKRUPTCY - December 3, 2009

In the past few years, we have seen several plaintiffs take up the weapon of bankruptcy, always to their own advantage and the robbing of legitimate claimants. There was the classic case of United Airlines, in which the executives put cash for their own accounts with a financial corporation while leaving the fates of their many thousands of working people dependant on the assets of the airline. At the opportune moment, the same executives declared bankruptcy without going out of business and continued operating in the same old way. The working stiffs were left holding the bag. A similar thing happened at GM, where the incompetent front office continued in the same old way, stuffing their own pockets, spending off the means by which the workers might have had pensions, not reacting to changes in the industry, but taking care of themselves. Now the big bankers have done the same, and are already gobbling up the bonuses, and the more they take, the sooner they will call on DC for more rescues, to save the economy. At the same time, the creditor class are wringing out the little bankrupts, like college lenders and mortgagors, for money in excess of the agreed settlements in excess of the pledges. Bankruptcy has the advantage, rare in our anglosaxon society, of allowing those who make errors to start again and maybe succeed, but the creditor class has taken that decency away from those who are without power and lots of money. Meanwhile, they have taken care to feather their own nests and are busy doing it to us again. In theory, the threat of financial failure is a mark of responsibility in capitalist society that distinguishes it from the stone face of socialism, but that apparently is thought too harsh for those too big to face punishment. Capitalism has its failures, and so does socialism, but bureaucratic capitalism has all the faults of both. Welcome to the Brave new World.